Adults-only culture entails bad faith
The invitation says no children, and where my children aren’t welcome, I’m not either.
The original, Spanish version of that sentence can be found in a tweet that went viral in Mexico recently, after a mother declined her friend’s adults-only wedding invitation in a private WhatsApp conversation that was later shared with, and eagerly scrutinized by, the Mexican public.
Some commentators celebrated the friend’s decision to opt out. Others said it was the couple’s right to exclude kids; it’s their wedding, after all.
Adults-only weddings aren’t the only venues where children are getting short shrift. In Galicia, Spain, the restaurant O Fragón de Fisterra ignited controversy after mandating that all children under 12 remain seated throughout their meals. In a now-infamous 2019 incident, a mother flying from Seoul to San Francisco distributed ear plugs, sweets and apology notes to her fellow passengers in preparation for her infant’s inevitable cries. While this story caused discomfort to some, it emboldened others to claim that children don’t belong on planes. Meanwhile, South Korea has around 500 designated "child-free zones" — a remarkable figure doesn't include spaces like bars and nightclubs. And closer to home, in Las Vegas, two adults-only casino-resorts were recently opened to great acclaim.
Such child-marginalizing acts are generally justified by supporters in terms of individual choice: it’s my wedding, my restaurant or my desire for peace and quiet on this flight or in this world-class pool. Tacit in such arguments is the additional idea that discriminating against children is different from discriminating against other marginalized social groups. It’s more akin, proponents suggest, to parents leaving their kids with a babysitter before a rejuvenating night out than it is to, say, country clubs banning women and people of color from membership. But this is misguided — discriminating against children as a group is often a pernicious and wrongful act.
First, what these child-banning arguments never mention is that the excluded children in question are members of an extremely powerless, highly marginalized social group. Children cannot vote and they lack political power. They are almost entirely dependent on their caregivers to fulfill their basic needs — caregivers who are often, in turn, denied the social services they need to provide for the young.
Children are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, bullying and neglect. In the U.S., gun violence is the leading cause of death for children, and kids will soon face horrors of climate change for which they bear no responsibility. Children of color are disproportionately positioned in a school-to-prison pipeline, and poor children everywhere are vulnerable to health problems from which they may never fully recover.
This is the social group that is increasingly banned from corners of society that have historically included young people (even in Las Vegas). Of course, making kids remain in their seats at a restaurant or excluding them from weddings or vacation destinations does not put one on the moral hook for these terrible injustices. But it does mean that one is picking out an oppressed group and subjecting its members to additional, unnecessary social burdens.
Second, wrongful discrimination against children is a form of what existentialists call “bad faith.” In her 1970 book La vieillesse (Old Age), Simone de Beauvoir condemned the widespread aversion people have to the old even though all of us will, with luck, become elderly. As Kate Kirkpatrick and Sonia Kruks explain, for Beauvoir the repugnance that the “not yet old” feel toward elderly bodies — and the ways in which “we” make the elderly feel useless and despised — entail bad faith about the biological facts of our existences.
Of course, discrimination against children is different from ageism against the elderly. Among other things, children’s bodies generally do not inspire the sort of “biological repugnance” (Beauvoir’s words) with which many problematically react to those of the fourth age. However, the “bad faith” of wrongful, anti-child discrimination may sometimes be worse.
While a great number of us will never grow old, every adult was, by definition, previously a child. Anti-child discrimination thus envelopes all of humanity in its bad faith tentacles. Furthermore, unlike (many of) the elderly, children have never voted, and they have been otherwise powerless for their entire lives. This bad faith, then, is potentially more harmful, targeting those who haven’t any social capital to fall back on.
Third, wrongful anti-child discrimination is pernicious because it seems to undermine the very freedom of expression of young people. The baby who cries on a plane is expressing their pain, hunger or discomfort in the only way they physically can. The child forced to sit still throughout their meal is not only made bodily uncomfortable, but also denied a form of (bodily) communication that is fundamental to most children’s lives. The children banned from weddings or vacation destinations because they are “disruptive” are being targeted because they need to play as they engage their social worlds. Unlike leaving kids with a sitter for “date night,” such exclusions target children at their very core, communicating that there is something wrong with them in relation to society.
I am not arguing for the absurd claim that children should be included in everything adults ever do — not everything that "happens is Vegas," for instance, is clearly child-friendly. Furthermore, I don’t think adult-only weddings should be illegal, or that grimacing when babies cry on planes should be criminalized.
Similarly, it should not be illegal for men to refuse to eat at restaurants with women who are not their wives, as Mike Pence famously does, or to behave rudely toward members of social groups to which one feels inherently superior. But something can be both legal and the wrong thing to do.
Wrongful discrimination against children as a group stems from a desire to ban young people from virtually all spheres of social existence. It is not heading out for a child-free date night; it is, rather, oppressive bad faith. Borrowing from the words of the Twitter-famous Mexican mom in her WhatsApp wedding decline, where children are not welcome, no one really is.
On the bright side, Las Vegas offers us a fascinating laboratory for the future construction of child-friendly spaces. This is because "Sin City" is not known as a haven for children — a mom and writer recently wrote of her concern about bringing her kids to Vegas (that is, the Vegas Strip) for fear of what she described as its "leering men and generally creepy vibe." But every time a new child-friendly space is developed in this town — like family-friendly features at casinos, water parks for all ages, family shows and first-rate children's museums — we make a Vegas-bold statement about intergenerational inclusivity where it's least expected.
Amy Reed-Sandoval is an associate professor of philosophy at UNLV, and a Philosophy for Children scholar-practitioner. She created the Philosophy for Children in the Borderlands Program and several other pre-college philosophy programs on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. She has published academic articles on equity in education in venues such as LA Times en Español, Ms. Magazine, Salon, Psyche, The Guardian and the BBC News Online, and is an inaugural Marc Sanders Foundation Philosophers in the Media fellow.